by Michael D. Anestis, Ph.D.
I came across an interesting study this morning in the new issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. The authors - Patrick Quinn, Cynthia Stappenbeck, and Kim Fromme of the University of Texas - examined an interesting hypothesis: that in addition to the well-known impact of personality on drinking behavior (e.g., certain personality traits correspond with an increased likelihood of heavy drinking later on), drinking behavior during college might actually predict changes in particular components of personality.
This is important for a number of reasons. First off, it would indicate that, although personality is generally quite stable and involves a substantial amount of genetic inheritance, it remains pliable enough to shift in response to particular behavioral patterns. In other words, certain aspects of "who a person is" might actually change over time due to particular experiences. Secondly, it would significantly increase the degree to which cross-sectional studies of personality variables are limited in what they tell us, as studies that only look at personality and associated behaviors at one time point would have a tougher time making the argument that we can assume the directionality of their findings (e.g., that personality leads to behaviors and not vice versa).
The authors spent a decent amount of time in their introduction section discussing the corresponsive principle (Caspi et al, 2005) and included a particularly useful quote: "the most likely effect of life experience on personality development is to deepen the characteristics that lead people to those experiences in the first place" (p.470 from Caspi et al citation above). In other words, behaviors (e.g., heavy alcohol use) are likely to influence the components of personality that increase the likelihood of individuals engaging in those behaviors (e.g., impulsivity, sensation seeking) rather than other personality variables either unrelated or only loosely related to the onset of the behavior (e.g., autonomy).
Participants in this study were part of an impressive longitudinal study looking at dysregulated behaviors from the end of high school through college. 2,247 students between the ages of 17 and 19 filled out a survey about their high school personality and behaviors just prior to the onset of college and then two additional surveys each academic year for three years (plus one during their senior year). The initial sample was larger, but only those randomized to complete the assessments relevant to this study were included. The authors hypothesized that higher levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking (see my earlier articles on the UPPS-P for a better understanding of these variables) would predict increased levels of heavy drinking. Importantly, however, they also predicted that heavy drinking would predict increases in impulsivity and sensation seeking despite what they anticipated would be a very small amount of average change in these variables across the sample. Taking this a step further - to test the specificity of the effect of heavy drinking on personality variables related to that behavior, they anticipated that autonomy would not predict heavy drinking and that heavy drinking would not predict future increases (or decreases) in autonomy. Finally, in order to ensure that significant findings did not simply represent the idea that being affiliated with other same-sex peers who drink in a manner consistent with their own drinking account for personality changes (e.g., ensure it was the drinking and not the social group that predicted personality change), the authors also tested whether social group drinking norms better accounted for the results.
Impressively, all of the results supported the authors stringent hypotheses. Not surprisingly, high levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking predicted heavy drinking in college whereas autonomy did not. More importantly, heavy drinking in college predicted later increases in impulsivity and sensation seeking despite that fact that, on average, participants' levels on these variables did not change throughout the study. In other words, most individuals remained essentially the same personality-wise, but for those who did see shifts, heavy drinking often preceded the change and accounted for a significant portion of the variation from prior levels. The idea that behavior can impact personality is not entirely new, but such a well designed empirical test of the possibility is great to see and offers inspiration for slew of future studies (I've already had a few churning in my head this morning). As expected, heavy drinking did not predict changes in autonomy, meaning that behavior doesn't impact the entirety of an individual's personality, but rather is likely restricted to influencing components of personality that are directly related to the behavior. Finally, the authors found no empirical support for the notion that these findings might be better accounted for by peer drinking norms.
Something to keep in mind here - and the authors were careful to point it out - is the age range. The authors chose this age group with good reason: personality varies across the lifespan (in some ways) but particular age groups see more change than others. In other words, the argument here is not that the relationships would be the same in all samples, but rather that this transactional pattern may be a good fit for college-aged individuals.
Overall, I think this study is hugely important. Granted, a lot of the work I do looks at the relationship between personality variables and dysregulated behaviors, so it has serious implications for my work likely to impact my view of its importance, but I don't think that's the only reason I'm drawn to its results. What do you think about these findings? Do you see any holes in the arguments? Do you think this pattern would hold true across a wide range of behaviors?
If you would like to learn more about this or other topics discussed on PBB, we recommend that you consult our online store for scientifically-based psychological resources.
References in this text
Caspi, A., Roberts, B.W., & Shiner, R.L. (2005). Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 453-484.
Quinn, P.D., Stappenbeck, C.A., & Fromme, K. (2011). Collegiate heavy drinking prospectively predicts change in sensation seeking and impulsivity. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120, 543-556.